When the Supreme Court decided recently that the constitutional right to privacy does not extend to homosexual sodomy, it prompted a clamorous response. The decision was applauded by fundamentalist groups as a move toward greater sexual morality, challenged by civil libertarians as a threat to the right of privacy and denounced by gay activists as a pretext for persecution of homosexuals. To David F. Greenberg, 44, a professor of sociology at New York University, these disparate voices reflect society’s age-old ambivalence about the regulation of sexual behavior and of homosexuality in particular. Greenberg has published numerous scholarly articles in the field of deviance and social control and is currently completing a book examining perceptions of homosexuality since ancient times. He discussed the Supreme Court’s sodomy decision—and the complex cultural history behind it—with assistant editor David Grogan.
In handing down the recent Supreme Court decision, Justice Byron R. White said that condemnation of homosexuality has “ancient roots.” Do you agree with that observation?
I think it is somewhat misleading. Certainly there have been periods of intolerance toward homosexuals in history, but there have also been periods of social acceptance. The ancient Greeks, for example, attached no great significance to the gender of sex partners. There was no word for a homosexual person. What was looked down on was male effeminacy. The god Zeus was said to have loved young men, as did Apollo and Hercules. Plato and Aristotle, among other Greek philosophers, also had male lovers. In Thebes, for example, male homosexuality was regarded as an expression of the “comradeship of arms” among noble warriors. In Greece, sexual relations with an adult man were considered part of an adolescent male’s education. Relations between adult men were frowned upon—the opposite of our own hierarchy of taboos.
When was homosexuality first looked upon as unacceptable social behavior?
Early Hebrew scriptures, notably Leviticus, referred to male homosexuality as an “abomination.” Some scholars believe that may have been a response to the Jews’ experience during their exile in Babylonia in the 6th century B.C. Throughout the Near East at that time, priests in pagan religions tried to emulate a mother goddess figure by becoming effeminate, even dressing as a woman and sometimes castrating themselves. Their male followers came to the temple and had anal intercourse with them as part of religious rituals. Judaism, which depicted a God who was exclusively male, had no place for such mother goddess worship; so the priests of Jehovah outlawed cult prostitution and the practice of men dressing as women.
What is the origin of the term sodomy?
It comes from the story in Genesis of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone. In biblical times, the general belief was that this was punishment from God for inhospitality to his messengers, including a threat by the people of Sodom to rape the angels who visited Lot. There is no mention of consensual homosexuality in that story. It was not until more than a thousand years later that the sin of Sodom became generally associated with anal sex, either homosexual or heterosexual.
How did this change in attitude occur?
St. Paul, who was responsible for the few passages in the New Testament condemning homosexuality, was heavily influenced by Greek Stoic philosophers. They argued that sex, even in marriage, prevented a man from concentrating on higher philosophy. Thus you find him advocating celibacy as a virtue. Some early bishops, exaggerating St. Paul’s views, argued that only virgins would be saved. Then in the 5th century, Augustine, a scholar from North Africa who converted to Christianity after at least one lustful involvement with another man and a long-term extramarital relationship with a woman, worked out a church policy on sexual matters. Augustine argued that sex was acceptable within marriage only for purposes of procreation. For the most part, homosexuality and adultery were considered equally offensive sins. But enforcement rarely went beyond penances imposed by a Church confessor—for example, fasting or saying prayers.
When did secular sanctions arise?
The first secular prohibitions in Western Europe were in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were prompted, in part, by a Church crackdown on rules of priestly celibacy. Previously, many priests had wives or mistresses. But when monastic discipline was imposed, homosexuality soon became a greater temptation in the monasteries and hence a more serious problem in the eyes of the Church. At the same time, a growing class of merchant capitalists and artisans began to view homosexuality as an excessive indulgence of the medieval aristocracy and priests.
How did antisodomy statutes become a part of the English legal tradition?
A decree by Henry VIII in 1533, which the Supreme Court cited as a basis for its recent decision, was the first English law prohibiting sodomy. For 150 years there were few prosecutions under that law. But in the late 17th century there were some raids on clubs and taverns in London that catered to transvestite men, some of whom were sent to the gallows. The British upper classes, believing that a weakening of firm moral standards had paved the way for the French Revolution, established a society for the suppression of vice in 1802. The aristocracy launched a widescale puritanical campaign and blocked liberalization of the laws against certain prohibited sexual acts for more than a generation.
Was there a similar wave of homosexual persecution elsewhere at this time?
Not really. By the 18th century, sodomy was a capital crime in Italy, but pimps were offering boys to tourists in the Piazza Navona in Rome and male transvestism and homosexuality were practiced quite openly in Venice. French law, which decriminalized sodomy, was imposed by Napoleon throughout much of Europe. The spirit of the Napoleonic Code was also taken by the Spanish to Latin America, where, despite the mystique of machismo and the influence of the Catholic Church, laws regarding sodomy are generally liberal or nonexistent. Meanwhile, missionaries who visited Japan and China were astonished that male homosexuality was practiced widely with no stigma. Nor was homosexuality frowned upon in American Indian culture. Pioneer settlers encountered tribes where transvestites, called berdaches, were often respected spiritual leaders and healers thought to possess supernatural powers.
How did laws against sodomy evolve in America?
Early Colonial statutes echoed English law, making sodomy a capital crime. But it was much more common for offenders to be flogged or just booted out of town. Thomas Jefferson, one of the few Founding Fathers who made known his views on sodomy, thought that castration was a more poetic form of justice than death. After independence, the death penalty was dropped for sodomy in most states. Until the late 19th century, there was very little persecution of homosexuals in America. But then you began to see some medical writings on so-called deviant sexuality. Some physicians began to look upon homosexuality as part of a larger syndrome, called degeneracy, which also included madness, criminal behavior, poverty and idiocy. It was believed that all of these social pathologies could be transmitted genetically from parents to children. So castration of homosexuals, or commitment to insane asylums, was often recommended on medical grounds. Even as late as the 1940s, some doctors tried to treat homosexual patients by injecting them with hormones. By 1961 all of the states had antisodomy statutes, though because of repeals the number is now down to 24 states.
Some gay rights advocates have compared the Supreme Court decision on sodomy to the Dred Scott case, an 1857 ruling which upheld slavery. Do you agree?
When the Dred Scott decision was issued, slaves who ran away to the North were actually being shipped back to the South. By contrast, even in those states that still have sodomy statutes, it is almost unknown for anyone to be prosecuted under them. Gay men are sometimes arrested for public indecency or other minor charges, but rarely for sexual activities which are consensual and done in the privacy of their own homes. So I see the court ruling in the Georgia case as largely symbolic. I don’t think it will dramatically affect the lives of most homosexuals.